Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Tapping the Vein

Clive Barker Tapping the Vein (1990)

I've never been entirely sure about horror fiction, and whilst I enjoyed Barker's The Hellbound Heart, I seem to recall Weaveworld as fairly unsatisfying. I bought a couple of issues of Tapping the Vein when it first appeared - this being comic strip adaptations of stories appearing in various volumes of Barker's Books of Blood - but either sold or gave them to someone, forgetting the things had ever existed until I came across this anthology - which probably isn't much of a recommendation.

The problems here seem to be twofold. Firstly, unless I'm somehow missing something, a great many Clive Barker horror stories tend to entail an innocent discovering something horrible and already well-established happening just to one side of the stage, then himself becoming an agent of said horrible thing, a status which might be deemed no better than that of victim. It all runs very close to being the same story told over and over with different flavours, a metaphor for how stuff is like really sick and gross and stuff but like we don't really see it even though it's all totally going on, yeah?

This by itself need not be a problem given that ultimately there are only seven different stories in the world, probably, so the details which matter are in the telling; and Clive Barker is very good at doing writing and that, which brings us to the second problem.

Tapping the Vein isn't exactly an adaptation in the normal sense, at least not in the same terms as Rob Liefeld's Finnegans Wake, possibly because those concerned were a bit nervous about plastering over Barker's wonderfully evocative prose which, after all, was what made these stories work in the first place. So we have comic book pages, beautifully painted for the most part, with fussy blocks of dense text crammed around each panel, and the end result can't quite decide whether it's a comic strip or an illustrated novel. Those passages which might have otherwise remained effectively silent, which, lacking text, would have allowed the imagery to convey some non-verbal meaning, are nevertheless clogged up with needlessy verbose paragraphs describing that which doesn't actually require a description because we can see it; which all rather dulls the impact of some otherwise quite powerful artwork by John Bolton, Klaus Janson, and others; and yet we can't read these tales quite as we would a book because the images get in the way, collapsing possibilities that might otherwise have been provided by imagination, and breaking up the rhythm of the prose.

Then, to gripe just a little further, we have How Spoilers Bleed in which amoral Amazonian land developers receive just deserts for their dreadful treatment of indigenous peoples; which is smashing, except it would have been nice to see said indigenous peoples for once granted a status above the mysterious and passive victims serving to justify the innards splashed all over the page towards the end of the tale. This is also the story in which our understanding of evil is aided by having one of the bad guys enjoy a live sex show starring a woman and a dog, which may well be an examination of evil which obliges the reader to question his or her but probably his own voyeuristic tendencies blah blah blah, or it could be an author drooling over repulsive imagery because it saves having to write an actual story, or maybe horror fiction just isn't my thing.

I'm tempted to suggest that readers of horror fiction might just as well leaf through photographs taken at Auschwitz as bother with a book for the same reason that sexual intercourse films don't really need those flimsy narratives about vacuum cleaner repairmen, but I suppose that would be terribly judgey of me, wouldn't it?

That said, In the Hills, the Cities, The Madonna, and Down, Satan have enough pleasantly weird ideas to suggest I might get something from the original prose only versions in Books of Blood; and Down, Satan in particular almost gets the balance of words and pictures just right with a more selective approach to captioning which perfectly compliments the beautiful painted artwork of Tim Conrad, whoever he may be. So it isn't all terrible, but it nevertheless seems a poor batting average for a name so famed as that of Clive Barker.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

His Share of Glory

C.M. Kornbluth His Share of Glory (1997)

As a fairly general rule I tend to approach an author of unfamiliar stripe by first dipping into the short stories, from which platform I then attempt to assess whether or not I'm likely to enjoy lengthier works. His Share of Glory seemed nevertheless a slightly daunting proposition because although it does indeed collect the short fiction of the highly praised C.M. Kornbluth, it collects all of it, or at least almost all he wrote alone and extracurricular to collaborative efforts with Frederik Pohl, Robert A. W. Lowndes, and others; so it's a 670 page hardback of such constitution that ne'er-do-wells could quite easily use it to smash the windows of jewellery stores. Reading His Share of Glory has therefore, in some respects, been a less casual undertaking than I would like, but being a birthday present from the world's greatest mother-in-law - who presented me with the Ace Double edition of Fritz Leiber's The Big Time on a previous occasion - it would have been churlish to get too sniffy about it, and not least because Kornbluth was clearly a remarkable writer.

As his still glowing reputation attests, Kornbluth was patently amongst the more talented of the Futurians - a moderately political New York based science-fiction fan group with a membership roster including Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Judith Merril, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim and others; and it's probably worth noting that he died relatively young and said reputation is thus founded on less than two decades of paid work. His characters tend to be lively, believable, and informed by strongly literary sensibilities. The stories they inhabit tend to be playful, rich in imagery and memorable phrasing, with the jerky narrative motion of van Vogt played more for comic than traditionally pulpy dramatic effect, so there's occasionally a faint tone of Marx brothers lending an absurdist spin to the proceedings, and the sort of bizarre embellishments which suggest Kornbluth's fiction as ancestral to Michael Moorcock's stranger material, or even that of Terry Pratchett in a certain light. One further element he at least had in common with these two is that of genre never once being allowed to take precedent over the progression of the narrative, or over its author taking infectious pleasure in the process.

Of Kornbluth's short stories, The Marching Morons and The Little Black Bag seem to be the best known, and understandably so, but he had plenty others of equivalent quality where those came from. Shark Ship predates Neal Asher's nautically themed weird fiction by nearly half a century; and Two Dooms divided the United States between Japan and the Third Reich a couple of years before The Man in the High Castle, and to more chilling effect for my money. The final eight stories of the collection were written to specific commissions and as such read a little like Kornbluth channelling E.E. 'Doc' Smith in terms of concessions to fifties space opera, but generally it seems he would have had trouble had he ever been asked to write a dull sentence; for example, The Last Man Left in the Bar:

'Bartender,' in a controlled and formal voice. Shot of Red Top and a beer at 9:09, the hand vibrating with remembrance of a dirty green El Greco sky which might be Brookhaven's heavens a million years either way from now, or one second sideways, or (bow to Method and formally exhaust the possibilities) a hallucination. The Seal snatched from the greenlit rock altar could be a blank washer, a wheel from a toy truck, or the screw top from a jar of shaving cream but for the fact that it wasn't. It was the Seal.

Of course, 670 pages of this would be disorientating, which is probably the only weakness of either this collection, or the fact of my having attempted to digest it in one go over the duration of a couple of weeks. Kornbluth possibly shouldn't be read in such huge chunks, at least not his short stories, being as some of those more eccentrically narrated lose cohesion without due concentration. At least that was how it seemed as I worked my way through, although considering the sheer volume of material here, the guy is entitled to have fired off a few blanks now and then.

In the event of this reading like an ambiguous verdict, the points to remember are that at his best, Kornbluth was fucking tremendous, and there's quite a lot of his best to be found here.

This collection was produced - by the way - by NESFA Press who've been doing some good work keeping certain authors in print, producing similarly exhaustive short story collections by the likes of Judith Merril, Murray Leinster, A.E. van Vogt, Cordwainer Smith and innumerable others; and I've encountered a rumour of their perhaps presently wrangling over the rights to gather together all of Clifford D. Simak's short fiction, volume or volumes I would crawl naked over broken glass to own, as they say, should the rumour turn out to be true. Aside from anything else, this should therefore be considered an enthusiastic recommendation.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The House That Stood Still

A.E. van Vogt The House That Stood Still (1950)

Even if you don't know exactly what you'll get with each new van Vogt title, you usually have a reasonable idea of the direction in which it will be headed. Nineteen of these things seemed like enough, and yet here I am reading my twentieth because I can't resist the guy, even knowing with some certainty that every single van Vogt review from here on will open with a variation on this same paragraph. The bottom line is that whilst there may be an element of repetition involved, in apparent contrast to stories which are often surprisingly difficult to follow or even incoherent, when there's the chance of something at least as magnificent as a despotic caveman leading a group of Nazis who live on the moon, only an idiot would leave it sat forlornly upon the shelf of the store.

There are no lunar national socialists here unfortunately, just the internal power struggles of a group of immortals resident in a house built by an alien robot in California around the year 300AD.

So what's new? one might wonder.

In this case it seems to be that van Vogt has been trying his hand at a conventional thriller, or at least conventional by his standards. The House That Stood Still is an actual single coherent novel, as opposed to the usual group of unrelated short stories bolted together and forced at gunpoint to make sense. Of course van Vogt's characteristic rhythm of weird twists and interjections every eight-hundred words still seems to be in place, but the element of the unexpected is kept under control, limited for the most part to the relatively plausible, so there's no sudden appearance of winged dinosaurs or any of the usual rampant surrealism. Our hero is a man called Allison who investigates the aforementioned ancient house for reasons I can't quite remember, and spends a lot of time shagging by the sort of terms you would expect from a novel written in 1950, if perhaps a little more enlightened than might be anticipated. There's also a whole load of Mesoamericana thrown into the mix, but I get the impression Alfred Elton's research was probably limited to what he could remember from some show he watched whilst drunk one evening. This would get on my tits somewhat were this any other author, but fuck it - only a fool would argue with this man.

It's not the greatest van Vogt, and although it's unusually restrained in comparison to some, it still has that rhythm, the constant motion of the characters and the quality of a dream, so it does its job.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Burning with Optimism's Flame

Jay Eales (editor) Burning with Optimism's Flame (2012)

Despite my salivating each time some new Faction Paradox commodity extends itself into noumenal reality, it's taken me an age to get around to this one, and partially because it first appeared as I was up to my eyeballs in writing Against Nature. Initially I was cautious on the grounds of fearing there might be some short story coincidentally duplicating one or more of my own vague ideas or themes, and so I wished to avoid the collection as a source of possible influence - not least due to having heard that Daniel Ribot's La Santa Muerte was not only set in Mexico but would also feature a certain Death Goddess who briefly turns up in my own extended leaflet. Since then it's just been a case of it slowly rising to the summit of a mountainous to-be-read pile.

I had been primed with slightly lowered expectations by internet mumblings along the lines of it's not as good as the last one, is it? - referring of course to 2011's A Romance in Twelve Parts, the previous Faction Paradox collection. Thankfully and possibly inevitably said mumblings translate to it's not identical to the last one, is it?, for the tone and focus of this anthology is somehow quite different. It feels more like an extension into mainstream science-fiction writing, by which I mean Isaac Asimov and all of those guys, as opposed to Babylon fucking 5 or any of those Doctor Who affiliated Short Trips collections but with more skulls. Jay Eales, it turns out, really knows how to pull an anthology together, as distinct from just asking a load of mates to come up with stories. I'm still not entirely sure how the title figures in all of this, whether it refers to some overarching theme I've failed to spot, but whatever the book does, it does it exceptionally well for the most part.

As has probably been said by someone or other, the beauty of Faction Paradox is that it really doesn't have to be about Faction Paradox to the point that no-one has yet really demonstrated that it's definitively about either the shared universe created by Lawrence Miles and others, or even just something so vague as a certain aesthetic. Some of the connections made here are accordingly very tenuous indeed, but it doesn't really matter because the only legitimate reason to pick up a book so far as I'm concerned is in anticipation of good writing, which is what you get.

Admittedly I found the opening stories a little variable - either too subtle for their own good or a little closer in spirit to Neil Gaiman than I generally like in one case, although they're all decent in their own ways. Nevertheless, the contrast - at least for me - when I came to Kelly Hale's contribution was almost shocking - a woman apparently incapable of writing a dull sentence whose work exudes the sort of effortless class that draws the reader in without the need for any obvious narrative hooks; and this quality recurs throughout the collection making the necessity of clear ties to some unifying mythology entirely peripheral.

Stephen Marley's All the Fun of the Fear, for one example, seems particularly tenuous as Faction Paradox literature, but if you can't appreciate a story in which the moon is seen to appear in the heavens wearing a hat, then maybe books aren't for you after all. Similarly sickeningly impressive are contributions from Simon Bucher-Jones, Jonathan Dennis, Sarah Hadley, and Philip Purser-Hallard all of which inspire questions as to why these four aren't yet at the stage of finding themselves buried in gold by eager publishers in the style of Edifis at the end of Asterix and Cleopatra.

They each respectively pack enough ideas for a decent novel into short form; and to concede a couple of specifics, Remake / Remodel begs the question of whether we might ever expect a full-length Faction Hollywood book, and Philip Purser-Hallard's wonderful ecclesiastically themed De Umbris Idearum only makes me resent the time and brain cells I wasted on Mary Doria Russell's Godawful Sparrow, all the more demonstrating as it does that strong religious themes can make for elegant science-fiction in the right hands.

I seem to have ended up gushing again, which can probably be safely dismissed as symptomatic of a lack of impartiality on my part. This book hasn't actually changed my life, and may not be the greatest collection I've ever read; but nevertheless it takes its subject mythology in a variety of unexpected directions, and does so with consistent style, and is as such difficult to fault; even though I didn't get to do the cover. Mutter. Mumble.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord Society of the Spectacle (1967)
This one has been on my mind for a few months now, but it was re-reading Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go which brought it to the top of the pile, there being some major themes shared by the two.

This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by intangible as well as tangible things, which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.

Which might be deemed to account for:

'I just think it's dangerous, that's all,' Valentine tried to explain, although he suspected he wasn't going to make much of an impression. 'You know there are kids now who grow up copying the TV ads? That's just, you know... how they see themselves. They don't want to be like people, they just want to be like the characters in the ad breaks. That's how they want to look and dress and... everything.'

Debord and the Situationist International came to my attention through a series of articles in Vague magazine, way back whenever the hell that was - not particularly engrossing articles, and Vague spent way too much time banging on about the sodding Sex Pistols Jubilee boat trip and Genesis P. Orrible, but I apparently absorbed enough for a few of the basic ideas to sink in; at least enough for connections to be made when The Apostles released their Smash the Spectacle EP - possibly the greatest punk rock record ever committed to vinyl - and when Will Self, Alan Moore, and Stewart Home all began dabbling in psychogeography.

Society of the Spectacle is, I suppose, an expansion of certain ideas generally associated with Karl Marx, although it could be argued that the Situationist International itself was as much about art as politics, or at least philosophy. Marx himself developed a fairly profound understanding of the mechanism by which society works to the point that ideology may seem a slightly limited term when applied to the larger body of his ideas. Marxist analysis might itself be deemed to go beyond politics, or at least party politics, and in many cases serves to explain the mechanism of society, and particularly capitalist society, and as such may as well be regarded as a soft science. Debord expands and refines Marxist analysis as it applies to the increasingly media-driven world of the 1960s and beyond; and for the most part it seems so well observed as to be alarming in so much as it's hardly a rosy picture which is painted; but then it is almost certainly better to understand a problem than not, particularly if we are ourselves a part of that problem.

Debord suggests that human society, with so few exceptions as to make no difference, must be viewed as spectacle, the spectacle being a representation of that society, specifically not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images - consensus reality, if you prefer, in which everything is defined as commodity. As consumers of commodity, we are separated by the spectacle, deprived the possibility of the common experience which would allow for contemplation of anything external to the spectacle. It's a fairly simple idea, and yet it's surprising how difficult it can be to truly express all of its subtleties. Debord did well, although Society of the Spectacle does require that one pay attention. I found some of the later points mystifying, although online testimonials seem to suggest this edition printed by Black & Red of Detroit might not be the best translation available.

The Situationist International could be viewed as an artistic response to the spectacle, a sort of derailing through acts falling somewhere between the Dadaist and the revolutionary which, distancing themselves from established and traditionally rational artistic narratives, defy commodification and strive to expose the spectacle for what it is, or summink. Debord's book is therefore a description of the territory, or even the canvas, and is as such an analytical rather than creative tool in respect to the more definably artistic currents of the movement.

The problem with all this is of course that the spectacle by its inherent nature reduces everything to commodity, including that which sets itself against the spectacle; and so the revolution is televised, and probably on pay-per-view, and thus rendered as sterile as that against which it was initially opposed:

Spectacular consumption which preserves congealed past culture, including the recuperated repetition of its negative manifestations, openly becomes in the cultural sector what it is implicitly in its totality: the communication of the incommunicable. The flagrant destruction of language is flatly acknowledged as an officially positive value because the point is to advertise reconciliation with the dominant state of affairs - and here all communication is joyously proclaimed absent. The critical truth of this destruction - the real life of modern poetry and art - is obviously hidden, since the spectacle, whose function is to make history forgotten within culture, applies, in the pseudo-novelty of its modernist means, the very strategy which constitutes its core. Thus a school of neo-literature, which simply admits that it contemplates the written word for its own sake, can present itself as something new.

It has been pointed out by its critics that the Situationist International is itself only a commodity and Situationism now amounts to flash mobs and hidden camera shows. This reduction of signal to noise can be seen in examples like that of psychochronography, the invention of a Doctor Who fan and self-published author who presumably decided that the Situationist concept of psychogeography held just the right sort of pseudo-intellectual weight to be applied to analysis of a children's television serial. Psychogeography being the deduction of narrative from physical space, the premise of psychochronography is therefore inherently absurd, purporting to deduce meaning from that which already exists exclusively as meaning, which not only leaves us with yet more overreaching spectacular juvenilia we really don't need, but serves to further clog up cultural bandwidth by the reduction of analysis itself to mere packaging.

None of this should make any difference to that which is observed in the Society of the Spectacle providing one is able to read without too much crosstalk of the kind described above; and I would suggest that as analysis it remains as relevant as ever; and whilst I see no value in placing Debord's book on a pedestal, it should be read, and it deserves better than to be remembered as a footnote to lesser works.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Second Variety

Philip K. Dick Second Variety (1987)

This is the second volume of Dicks' short stories, assembled by the order in which they were written and following on directly from those collected as Beyond Lies the Wub. Again the influence of A.E. van Vogt is fairly pronounced, notably in the surreal imagery of stories such as Martians Come In Clouds with its silent invaders simply drifting to earth, getting caught in trees and the like - although that one example probably worked better once recycled in The World Jones Made; and again, it becomes apparent that Dick's distinctive understanding of a layered reality received greater emphasis in later writings, not because it was something developed in later years, but because it took him time to devise a satisfactory means of framing his concerns in narrative form:

'They're visions.' Jon's face was alive with radiance. 'I've known it a long time. Grant says they're not, but they are. If you could see them you'd know, too. They're not like anything else. More real than, well, than this.' He thumped the wall. 'More real than that.'

Ryan lit a cigarette slowly. 'Go on.'

It all came with a rush. 'More real than anything else! Like looking through a window. A window into another world. A real world. Much more real than this. It makes all this just a shadow world. Only dim shadows. Shapes. Images.'

'Shadows of an ultimate reality?'

...or at least a satisfactory means of reframing Plato in narrative form.

So, it ticks the boxes, but even so it's hard to avoid getting the impression that Phil was getting a bit fucked off with it all whilst writing this lot, hacking out story after story for the pulps and still no novel under his belt. Some of these shorts are very pulpy, and more so than most of the previous collection, to the point of there being a few which read like they could have been written by almost anyone. The Hood Maker in particular feels like uninspired fan fiction for one of those is Arnold Schwarzenegger real? explosive action adaptations.

That said, both Project: Earth and A Present for Pat demonstrate that Dick was still having the occasional good day, that he hadn't completely lost it, and he even remembered to incorporate a sense of humour into the latter. The standard generally picks up towards the end of the collection as the first few months of 1953 come around. It makes me wonder what else was going on in the author's life at the time, because you can almost see the shape of slump and subsequent recovery of wits in the dip into relatively uninspired pulp. It would probably be easy enough to look it up and find out, but I can't be arsed; much like the man himself during the second half of 1952, so it seems. Nevertheless, I'm not complaining - even Dick's less impressive b-sides remain worth a look.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Book of Misplaced But Imperishable Names

Bill Lewis The Book of Misplaced But Imperishable Names (2005)
I first encountered Bill Lewis back in the eighties as he'd begun to achieve some fame as one of the Medway Poets, a group of writers hailing from the next town along when I was taking a fine arts degree. At the time I actively disliked poetry, or at least a great deal of that which happily identified itself as such, and I continue to do so in a general sense. Few writers, so it seemed to me, were ever at their best in verse, and the rest may as well be chuckling Richard Stilgoe types composing odes to the amusing misery of making a claim on one's car insurance so far as I was concerned - the sort of smirking crap that eventually rendered BBC Radio 4 almost completely unlistenable. I was therefore astonished to find that I very much enjoyed the poems of Billy Childish, mainly because they resembled nothing I had experienced as poetry, and did a lot of the things I generally like writing to do, just in shorter and sharper form. I saw Billy read, sat smoking at a desk in his old man's suit, reciting accounts of his continued survival as though delivering statements in a police interview room. He'd been caught red handed, but he was fucked if he was going to say sorry.

Bill Lewis was, so far as I saw it, the other big name of the Medway Poets. He seemed to have the highest visibility and was an undeniably dynamic performer, violent and explosive where Billy seemed to brood and simmer. His material too felt more travelled, somehow more universal in compensation for lacking the visceral edge of Childish's writing. He seemed like someone who could have hung out with Ginsberg or Lenny Bruce in another life; plus he knew at least one tribal shaman and had involved himself in South American revolutions from time to time. Drawing on this wealth of experience, he generally manages to communicate something vital without it coming across like an affectation, as it could have done and has done for other more cynical and hence lesser talents; and although I must own up to never quite enjoying his use of a traditional native drum, that isn't really Bill's fault.

Anyway, still going strong thirty years later, this collection serves as a reminder of all that defined the voice of Bill Lewis as carrying such a distinctive tone back when I was younger and not quite so fat. The poetry is well represented in his consistently elegant use of language and thoughtful narrative, although the form taken tends towards short stories, essays, observations, and vignettes - probably easier to just call it writing. He shares that same roughly working class edge as Billy Childish without it serving as either a substitute for content or letting it define him, as beautifully illustrated in Tomatoes, another autobiographical snippet in which he introduces a fellow worker to the poetry of Pablo Neruda:

'Sod off! I'm reading a poem.'

The woman and the two men next to her started to take the piss 'Oh lah dee dah... we didn't know we woz mixing wiv the gentry. It's Lord Muck of Turd Hall.' They soon grew tired of it and went back to their lunch.

'Sometimes I think we're our own worst enemies. The British working classes might as well walk around with a Kick Me sign stuck on our backs,' he said and then returned to the page.

He read the title again, then he read the poem. He read slowly. I saw him smile a couple of times.

Yes, I've been there. In fact I was there for about twenty years, and for me this piece epitomises what I like best about Bill's writing and, by extension, about Bill himself: his endless enthusiasm and sheer passion for communication and that which excites him, and that he's plainly the real thing and doesn't really give a shit what the rest of us may think. That is to say, what you get in this book is not some projected persona, nor anything representing strategy in any shape or form - another aspect he shares with Childish. Of course, honesty and enthusiasm by themselves would be useless were it not for the author's willingness to get out there and experience the world on its terms, even in places where curiosity can get you killed. He dips toes - at least up to the waist - in native American lore; which is something which would ordinarily bring me out in hives for the reason that if I want to know about indigenous cultures of whatever form - as I often do - the last thing I want to know is what some white guy thinks, for that way lies Sting, Bonio, and other tosspots taking their cheap holidays in someone else's ethnic diaspora; but Bill gets away with it, and even brings back something interesting, because he understands myth and its place in common human experience; and he does it without losing his sense of humour.

Of course there are some points he makes which just don't work for me - which I mention here for the sake of quantifying the praise - but Lordy - I don't see that anyone with functioning brain cells could fail to find this an absorbing and enlightening read. Bill Lewis is a true original.

Not sure about availability but you might do worse than trying Bill's site.